I love being in nature. I find it to be the most wondrous, pleasant, and exhilarating experience in which one is able to connect with the deeper essence of self. Being out in nature is hugely uplifting to your mood which then permeates the body.

As a psychologist I often find myself pondering the effect that nature has on me –  emotionally, physically, spiritually and cognitively.

In his book “Last Child in the Woods” (2005) Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Richard explains the causal link between nature depravity and the rise in childhood obesity and depression. The ‘nature deficit disorder’ does not only apply to children but to adults as well. There is a plethora of research that shows the positive benefits of being out in nature both emotionally, physically, cognitively, and spiritually.

The Psychological Science journal reported on a research study conducted by Berman, Jonides and Kaplan (2008) that people did much better in memory tests after being in nature. In another article by Berman (2012) he and fellow researchers explored the benefits of walking in nature. What they found was astounding. They found that people with depression benefit up to five times more from nature walks than healthy individuals. Nature walks thus had a positive effect on mood. More research found that being outdoors reduced stress by lowering the stress hormone – cortisol. Furthermore, research showed evidence of better performance, heightened concentration,  and improvement in creative and problem-solving skills.

I live in a coastal city in South Africa (Cape Town ) and many clients often tell me that when they are depressed, stressed or anxious they often drive to the beach or go for a walk in the forests. However, not all have the luxury of living in a coastal city/ town. Many more individuals don’t have access to natural environments and sometimes have to travel for miles to get to such places. The reality is that nature is not always accessible.

So what do we do now?

Many professionals such as psychologists, sports coaches, and psychiatrists utilise guided imagery to help others reduce stress, anxiety and/ or depression or even to enhance performance. Guided imagery uses the power of the imagination to induce relaxation.  Mental images are used to evoke feelings of relaxation, peacefulness, and happiness.

Research surveys show that there are numerous benefits to guided imagery such as a reduction in stress and blood pressure and even cholesterol, lowering of anxiety, stimulating creativity and abstract thinking, and so on. Guided imagery is often best performed with the help of a professional, but again this might not always be achievable. Fortunately, there is an overabundance of information on guided imagery on the internet.

In short, however, in order to practice guided imagery one needs to find a quiet spot. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Breath deeply and slowly. Deep breathing, also referred to as ‘belly-breathing’, requires the individual to inhale through the nose, hold his/ her breathing and exhale through the mouth. This is done slowly and rhythmically with the stomach moving up and down.

As you start feeling more relaxed visualise your favourite scene such as the beach, walking in the forest, being in the mountains or walking down a country lane, and so on. At this point, it is useful to use the power of your senses to create powerful images. Stay in the picture for a while before slowly opening your eyes. After you have completed this process you should be in a more relaxed state.

Sometimes it does not always work immediately and therefore one needs to practice the technique.

Happy visualising! or Happy walking!

written by Jeromy Mostert, Counselling Psychologist